Lead Poisoning Remains a Problem in the United States — But it is Preventable
Lead has no known value to the human body and can adversely affect nearly every body system. Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. Therefore, many children with lead poisoning go undiagnosed and untreated.
Young children are particularly at risk for lead exposure because they have frequent hand-to-mouth activity and absorb lead more easily than do adults. Children’s nervous systems are still undergoing development and thus are more susceptible to the effects of toxic agents. Lead is also harmful to the developing fetuses of pregnant women.
Low levels of lead can cause reduced intelligence and attention span, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Very high lead levels (blood lead levels 70[micro]g/ dL or greater) can cause severe neurological problems such as coma, convulsions, and even death. Such levels are now rare in the United States.
No safe blood lead level in children has been determined. About 310,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10[micro]g/dL, the level targeted for elimination by 2010.
What is Lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring, bluish-gray metal found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Lead contamination is widespread in the modern environment. Much of it comes from human activities including burning leaded gasoline, mining, and manufacturing. Lead is still used in many products today. It is used in batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes), and devices to shield x-rays. However, lead in paint is the main high-dose source of lead exposure to U.S. children today.
Lead was widely used in paint through the 1940s. That use declined during the 1950s and 1960s, and lead was banned from paint for residential use in 1978. Even so, lead remains a hazard in homes built before the ban, especially in pre-1950 housing. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 38 million housing units contain lead-based paint.
The most common sources of lead exposure for children are chips and particles of deteriorated lead paint. Although children may be exposed to lead from paint directly by swallowing paint chips, they are more commonly exposed by ingesting house dust or soil contaminated by leaded paint. Lead paint chips become ground into tiny bits that become part of the dust and soil in and around homes. This usually occurs when leaded paint deteriorates or is subject to friction or abrasion (as on doors and windowsills and wells). In addition, lead can be dispersed when paint is disturbed during demolition, remodeling, paint removal, or preparation of painted surfaces for repainting.
Lead also may be found in other sources. These sources may be the exposure source for as many as 30% of lead-poisoned children in certain areas across the United States. They include:
* Traditional home health remedies such as azarcon and greta, which are used for upset stomach or indigestion, and paylooah, which is used for rash or fever
* Some imported candies (specifically those from Mexico)
* Imported toy jewelry
* Some imported cosmetics
* Pottery and ceramics
* Drinking water contaminated by lead leached from lead pipes, solder, brass fixtures, or valves
* Consumer products, including tea kettles and sidewalk chalk
Additionally, a variety of work and hobby activities and products expose adults to lead. This also can result in lead exposure for their families. Activities that are associated with lead exposure include indoor firing range use, home repairs and remodeling, and pottery making. “Take-home” exposures may result when people whose jobs expose them to lead wear their work clothes home or wash them with the family laundry. It also may result when they bring scrap or waste material home from work.
The goal is to prevent lead exposure to children before they are harmed. There are many ways parents can reduce a child’s exposure to lead. The key is stop children from coming into contact with lead. Lead hazards in a child’s environment must be identified and controlled or removed safely.
Lead-based paint is the major source of exposure for lead in U.S. children. All houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint. However, it is the deterioration of this paint that causes a problem. You should determine the construction year of the house or the dwelling where the child may spend a large amount of time (e.g., grandparents or daycare). In housing built before 1978, assume that the paint has lead unless tests show otherwise.
* Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
* Make sure your child does not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint.
* Pregnant women and children should not be present in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation. They should not participate in activities that disturb old paint or in cleaning up paint debris after work is completed.
* Create barriers between living/play areas and lead sources. Until environmental clean-up is completed, parents should clean and isolate all sources of lead. They should close and lock doors to keep children away from chipping or peeling paint on walls. You can also apply temporary barriers such as contact paper or duct tape, to cover holes in walls or to block children’s access to other sources of lead.
* Regularly wash children’s hands and toys. Hands and toys can become contaminated from household dust or exterior soil. Both are known lead sources.
* Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window components. Because household dust is a major source of lead, parents should wet-mop floors and wet-wipe horizontal surfaces every 2-3 weeks. Windowsills and wells can contain high levels of leaded dust. They should be kept clean. If feasible, windows should be shut to prevent abrasion of painted surfaces or opened from the top sash.
* Prevent children from playing in bare soil; if possible, provide them with sandboxes. Parents should plant grass on areas of bare soil or cover the soil with grass seed, mulch, or wood chips, if possible. Until the bare soil is covered, parents should move play areas away from bare soil and away from the sides of the house. If using a sandbox, parents should also cover the box when not in use to prevent cats from using it as a litter box. That will help protect children from exposure to animal waste.
To further reduce a child’s exposure from nonpaint sources:
* Avoid using traditional home remedies and cosmetics that may contain lead.
* Avoid eating candies imported from Mexico.
* Avoid using containers, cookware, or tableware to store or cook foods or liquids that are not shown to be lead-free.
* Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, and for making baby formula. Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead. Most of the lead in household water usually comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water supply.
* Shower and change clothes after finishing a task that involves working with lead-based products such as stained glass work, bullet making, or using a firing range.
If you are concerned that your child may have been exposed to lead, ask your doctor for a blood lead test. This simple test is the ONLY way to know for sure that your child does not have an elevated blood lead level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages 6-72 months who live in or frequently visit older buildings, including day care centers, have a blood lead test. Siblings, housemates, visitors, and playmates of children with confirmed lead poisoning may have similar exposures to lead and should be promptly tested. Children may also be exposed to other sources, such as those mentioned above, and should have a blood lead test. Children who have recently moved to the United States should be tested as well.